Chopard’s establishment of a new manufacture for fine watches in 1996 created waves in a watch industry that was still shaking off the troubles of the previous decade. Over the twenty years since, the L.U.C. collection has developed a distinctive niche in fine watchmaking that’s marked by both creativity and a genuine respect for tradition. As the brand marks the anniversary with the launch – at SalonQP – of the GMT One in rose gold, James Gurney looks back at its genesis.
Pictures by Gary Smith for QP
Chopard has been making quite a fuss about the twentieth anniversary of the L.U.C manufacture, including a three-day exhibition at Phillips in London and the launch of a fleet of travel watches (more of which below). Given the watch industry’s penchant for celebrating anniversaries of more or less imaginary importance you would be justified in letting your eyes pass straight to the watches. But Chopard’s anniversary is a better story than might be imagined, as it reflects the stratospheric growth of the watch industry over the last two decades, a period that’s seen more changes and evolutions than any comparable period
The L.U.C manufacture in Fleurier is one of three sites that Chopard produces watches in (Fleurier Ebauches next door and the jewellery manufacture in Meyrin, Switzerland, where watches are assembled to qualify for the Poinçon de Genève being the other two). It’s a “full-service” manufacture that includes everything from the R&D department to final quality control via tool and component making and assembly (though most of the R&D has been spun off to a new centre, Chopard Technologies, across town).
Chopard employs 120 plus people across 15 professions, from technicians and watchmakers to testing inspectors via electroplating operators and finissage specialists. Altogether they produce about 5,000 complete L.U.C watches, as well as components for other Chopard watch collections. Almost next door is the Manufacture Fleurier Ebauches which was set up in 2007 and produces about 12,000 more basic movements a year (with a capacity to grow to 20,000 a year). Chopard is now established as a serious watchmaking concern, but it wasn’t inevitable that the company should have developed so far or so fast.
In retrospect, 1996 was a great year to open a brand new manufacture, but today’s impressive setup belies an origin that was much less certain or sure. The genesis of the project was in the late Eighties when Karl-Friedrich Scheufele was working with Svend Andersen to adapt a QP module for a Jaeger-LeCoultre base movement.
The result was a good watch and typical of the way Chopard worked, sourcing appropriate movements and complications from the best suppliers available (the company also buys in movements from Frédéric Piguet and Lemania, as well as ETA), but in doing the R&D, Scheufele was frustrated at the less than optimal process which involved sending out for prototype components and generally being at the mercy of his suppliers. He realised that sustaining a presence at the top end of the market would, at the least, mean setting up a proper, in-house R&D department.
That idea developed as Scheufele became convinced that the company needed to develop its own production, partly to gain legitimacy with serious collectors and partly to develop the control of quality that the company had through its jewellery sites in Meyrin and Pforzheim. By 1993 Scheufele had won the backing of his family to start development of a new movement. Working on the new movement with Michel Parmigiani, whose new company was based in Fleurier, Scheufele quickly realised that the town would be a great place to base the new business and found space in the old Fabrique d’ébauches de Fleurier building, and so the project had a solid foundation.
Scheufele stated that it would be easier for the manufacture to develop steadily than if they had set up in Le Brassus or La Chaux-de-Fonds in the shadow of much longer established companies, though he’s also quite proud that Fleurier has become a watch town once more (the town hosts Bovet, Vaucher and Richemont’s ValFleurier component business as well as Parmigiani and Chopard). 1996 saw Chopard move in with a handful of watchmakers to start work on the movement, which became the L.U.C 1.96 and the first watches were released in 1997.
Despite the relatively small scale of development and production, the 1.96 movement wasn’t lacking in ambition. Intended to look the part against equivalent movements from the likes of Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre, the 1.96 was surprisingly slim, at 3.3mm, thanks to a micro-rotor built into the movement that nevertheless had a longer than usual 65-hour power reserve, fully jewelled throughout, the movement nevertheless used ball bearings for the micro-rotor.
Other refinements (partly mandated by the need to qualify for the Poinçon de Genève) include a Breguet overcoil hairspring and swan-neck adjustment for the GL.U.Cydur balance. And the refinements worked as the chronometer certificates supplied with the early watches showed: a typical standard deviation being just over one second with little variation in position.
The completion of the 1.96 and the less finished 3.96 movements were a triumphant moment for Scheufele and he rates the sight of the first movement coming to life as one of the finest in his career. Nevertheless, there were plenty of bumps on the road. If the movement compared favourably with anything else on the market, production did not. The Chopard Manufacture struggled to complete 1,000 watches in its first full year, but the strong reception for the watch prompted Scheufele to push ahead with both production developments and R&D for new movements.
Since then, L.U.C has taken over the building, trained up staff (about half a dozen apprentices at any one time), developed its own balance wheel (the adjustable-inertia Varinar), a collection of interesting movements (there are 10 base calibres ranging from the first tonneau-shaped movement with a micro-rotor, the Quattro, with its four barrels and nine-day power reserve, a perpetual calendar, a tourbillon, a high-end chronograph to the sonnerie-en-passant Strike One). Chopard has, without doubt, earned a place in the still small number of fine watchmaking manufactures.
The anniversary watches:
Alongside the L.U.C Perpetual Chrono and the L.U.C XPS 1860 launched at this year’s Baselworld, Chopard marked the anniversary with an exhibition at Phillips, where they launched a set of very smart travel watches, the L.U.C GMT One and the L.U.C Time Traveller One. The GMT One is available in steel and rose-gold versions and has two crowns: the first crown positioned at 2 o’clock serves to adjust the date and local time, while the second crown at 4 o’clock controls the arrow-tipped baton hand pointing to the second time zone, which is orange for the steel version and gilt for the rose-gold one.
The L.U.C Time Traveller One shows local time and time in each of the 24 time zones on the outer dial ring. The stainless-steel version features a sunburst black dial with contrasting orange accents. The worldtime ring stands out clearly, with a slate grey half indicating the night-time hours, and a silver-toned half showing daytime. The rose-gold version’s dial is silver-toned, apart from the night-time hours that are shown in deep blue on its 24-hour disc, while the platinum case one has a blue-grey dial and a half silver-toned worldtime ring. Read more about the Time Traveller collection here.